Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tasting the Wines of Jaques Lassaigne

The other day I was fortunate enough to meet Emmanuel Lassaigne, son of Jacques, and now the wine maker at Champagne Jacques Lassaigne. Jenny & François import these wines for the east coast, and they organized a tasting in a small and very comfortable setting that actually encouraged conversation, instead of merely offering a glass and a spit bucket. And converse we did - I spoke with Emmanuel for about an hour while tasting, and I learned a great deal about his wines.

The Lassaigne estate is located in Montgueux, a large chalky hill whose vineyards produce what many consider to be the finest Chardonnay grapes in the Aube. This place, known as the Montrachet of Champagne, is an island of Chardonnay in a sea of Pinot Noir. Lassaigne has parcels in several vineyards here, and also purchases grapes from vineyards farmed by growers whose work he admires and has some influence over - Lassaigne's farming is done completely naturally. Montgueux Chardonnay can be more fruit forward and bold than that of the Côte des Blancs, its southern exposure allows for this. Lassaigne's wines show this ripeness, this forward fruit, but they do so with class and restraint, and the wines are beautifully pure.

Lassaigne is not what I would call cult Champagne, like Selosse, but this is definitely Champagne for the Champagne lover. And not because the wines aren't accessible - they are highly drinkable and easy to love. But there just isn't a lot of wine made, and even the basic NV wine is not easy to find. People buy these wines because they are searching for them, they are "destination" wines. Some would call them "hipster" wines, and perhaps they're right. But they are utterly delicious, and so I don't care if hipsters or nerds drink them - I want to drink them too.

It was a great experience to taste these wines with Emmanuel the other day. Here are a few notes and comments, prices are (wide) estimates:

NV Les Vignes de Montgueux Brut Blanc de Blancs, $45. A blend of grapes from 8 parcels, this version is 72% 2006, the rest 2005. Lovely perfume, very chalky, graceful and long. Excellent wine. This wine sometimes shows vegetal aromas that I've heard described as white asparagus. There was none of that in this bottle. It felt ripe and rich at only 3 grams of dosage.

NV Cuvée Le Cotet Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, $70. Le Cotet is a vineyard planted by Jacques Lassaigne between 1964 and 1967. There are only about 10 centimeters of topsoil over the chalk, and it is east-facing, and therefore the fruit is perhaps not as prominent a feature of this wine. Le Cotet is a curious wine in its final composition. It is a single vineyard wine, but it contains wines from several vintages, wines that are vinified differently. This bottle is about 90% from 2006, with 80% of that vinified in tank and 20% vinified in used Burgundy barrels. About 10% of the final blend is 2004 and 2002, but from bottles that are disgorged for this blend. An interesting mix, to say the least. I loved all of the wines on this day, but this was the one I wanted to bring home with me. The nose is delicate and focused, pure rocky citrus fruit, lean and elegant. The palate has a great core of energetic salty velvety ripe fruit, and feels perfectly balanced. I didn't read the label and assumed that this wine was dosed relatively highly - I guessed 8 grams. In fact there are only 2 grams per liter, not that 2 is better or worse than 8 obviously, but it shows how great the vineyard work is here, how perfectly ripe the fruit is. By the way, Lassaigne uses a code that is etched on the side of the bottle to indicate the year that his wines are bottled and disgorged. So 070409 means bottled in 2007 (hence the 2006 base year) and disgorged in April of 2009. It's worth examining the code when buying, because these are wines that change from year to year, unlike a lot of Champagne.

2002 Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs, $90. Emmanuel makes a vintage wine every year, "even if only a few bottles for my education," he says. He made a 2003, for example and he says that he got rid of it too soon, thinking it would fall off quickly. He learned that the minerality and the terroir is coming back, something that he says "happens when producers work the soil carefully instead of using traditional methods. The difference between good producers and others is very big in a year like 2003, less so in a year like 2004," he went on to say. The 2002 was completely different from the other wines, another style entirely. Although I like that think that I am improving as a taster, there is no way if tasting blind that I would have said this is made by the same producer who made the other wines. 25% of this wine comes from Le Cotet vineyard, the rest is from purchased grapes from 55 year old vines, and all of the wine is vinified in tank. But this is a big, rich, incredibly vinous nose, a bit backward now. Smooth as silk on the palate, very full and fleshy, but seems a bit unstructured to me, the acidity a bit muted. Perhaps these things are buried under the youthful fruit right now, and will emerge with time. The finish is long with lots of chalk and lemon zest. The nose becomes more articulate with air, although the palate remains a puzzle to me. Emmanuel says to hold this for another few years, that makes perfect sense to me - five at a minimum, I'd say.

NV La Colline Inspirée Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, only in magnum, $150. This wine is vinified entirely in barrel. This version is based almost entirely on 2005, and comes from old vines from three different vineyards. This was an interesting wine - yes there is wood influence, but I found the nose to be more floral than any of the other wines. Emmanuel says that is due to the vintage, the precocious 2005. The palate needs time to harmonize, but shows a lot of promise, and not a lot of wood. The acidity was again a bit muted, but I am inclined to believe that it is simply buried somewhere - this is a very young wine.

These wines are what the Champagne cognoscenti, the hippest, the nerdiest, and everyone in between are drinking in Paris, Japan, and Norway. Aren't we just as discerning here in the USA? I hope you retailers out there will stock these wines so I can buy them and drink them.


Gene said...

Hey Neil,

I recently had the basic Lassaigne BdB that I had picked up at Astor and it showed a bit differently than you describe (perhaps owing to Astor's abhorrent storage conditions in the store, bottle was "flawed", but not too sure). It was a really lovely bottle, but it did not have that chalkiness you talk about. It had really really intense pastry cream aromas. Reminded me of how a Beard Papa shop smells. I could critcize it for being a tiny little smidgeon on the unfocused side, but that's just me nitpicking.

Brooklynguy said...

hi Gene - Yeah, Astor's storage is not great, but I think it's better than many, especially if the bottle comes up from the basement, something I've been known to request with expensive Champs.

Sorry your experience with that bottle wasn't as good as some of mine have been. A few thoughts - Astor, I think, is still selling bottles from a previous shipment from over a year ago. Some wines do well with post disgorgement aging, others do not. I don't know how Lassaigne's NV BdBs does. But pastry cream sounds like either extended lees aging or post dis. aging. But the primary thing that came to mind when I read your comment is to wonder if we drank the same wine. What does the code on the bottle say? Your wine may very well be based on 2005 with some 04 too. The one I drank was based on 2006 with only a bit of 05,and that may account for the differences.

Gene said...

Hi Neil,

I don't know about the code, as I drank the bottle at a dinner party for a friend's b-school graduation about a month ago. So, it's long gone. I actually did ask Astor to bring the bottle from the basement and they said they didn't have any down there. If I had had more time, I would have gone to Crush or Chambers which have impeccable storage, but I was in a hurry to get to the dinner party on time.

I think you are probably right that this is post-disgorgement disease.

Gene said...

Oh, right... it was the Montgeaux (sp???)

Trevor McCallin said...

Champager is a wonderful way too pass the time!

Ted said...

Drinking a bottle of the basic NV as I write. Wonderfully accessible and easy to drink, and yes, purity abounds. This stuff rocks, and I get plenty of fruits, specifically cantaloupe and cucumber on the nose and on the plate, cantaloupe and honeydew melon with some solid underlying minerality. A very pleasant surprise, and it held up well to a half spicy Chinese green bean noodle and ground beef dish. Bought locally, I'll be picking up a few more for sure!